Like many beautiful books these days, Amber Wilson’s For the Love of the South began as a website of the same name—”a place,” she writes, “where I shared my love for the food, characters, and culture that helped shape who I am.” Wilson, a home cook now based in Nashville, hails from Lake Charles, Louisiana. When she presents you with recipes for red beans and rice, gumbo, maque choux, pain perdu, milk punch, and an at-home shrimp boil, you’d best lean in.
And so we have, my husband and I. To be precise, I’ve paged hungrily through this elegant book, salivating over the recipes, the accompanying photographs (also shot by Wilson), and essays in which Wilson explores her connection to various foods and culinary traditions. Meanwhile Todd, the head chef de famille, has been in the kitchen producing a number of its dishes.
We began simply, with Oregano and Garlic Butter Beans, which seemed easy and inexpensive to create, and also something our nine-year-old daughter would deign to eat. Deign she did, and I think it’s safe to say that from now on we’ll all take our butter beans just as Wilson likes them best: “spicy, sharp, and garlicky.” Her treatment leaves them anything but bland but not so piquant that children might object.
Unapologetic carb-lovers that we are, we then took Wilson’s Comforting Scalloped Potatoes for a spin.
I know I can’t reasonably eat Yukon Golds slathered in heavy cream, butter, and Parmesan cheese, and broiled crispy on top, on the regular. But this recipe gives us something to look forward to, particularly in the darkest days of winter when everything deep in our lizard-brains is begging for creamy, starchy, cheesy. It’s an unfussy, classic dish, and one I can’t wait to share with friends and family. People can only love you more when you indulge them with really good cheesy potatoes.
For the Love of the South is stocked with true keepers like this one, large and small. Along with the stand-by mains, which pull from across the spectrum of Southern cooking, with an emphasis on dishes rooted in the Cajun culinary tradition of Wilson’s family, there are accoutrements we should all know how to prepare—pickled onions, a creole mustard vinaigrette, fruit tea punch.
Wilson’s book is as practical as it is pretty: in a section titled “Kitchen Wisdom,” she reveals how she stocks her pantry, what she keeps at the ready in the freezer, and the four types of oils she uses for various applications, among other home-cooking hacks. She also shares some of her favorite staple brands, how to care for cast iron, and a handful of other cooking tools she can’t live without. There’s no question that we have gleaned useful material from this book beyond new recipes.
What next, then? I continued browsing, sipping a Sazerac and gazing longingly at a somewhat involved recipe for Vanilla-Sugared Doughnuts with a variety of stuffing options (such as Sea Salt Caramel Cream and Blackberry Preserves) and one for pimento hushpuppies—I have never met a hushpuppy I didn’t love. The “Drinks and Appetizers” section in particular, which featured those delightful balls of fried cornmeal, kept calling me back—the Georgia Peach Bellinis, French 77s (like a French 75, but with elderflower liqueur in place of the gin), Rosemary and Sea Salt Potato Chips, Pimento Cheese and Thyme Gougeres. (Are you getting a sense of how I most like to eat? With my fingers, and with a buzz.)
But Todd, left to his own designs one afternoon, texted me his suggestion for the next recipe test-run: gumbo. One of us clearly wants to nibble cheesy, carbohydrate-y things; the other wants to enjoy animal protein in some form at nearly every meal. The one who was willing to do the work would win this round. Gumbo it would be.
And it would be good, loaded with smoked sausage and shredded chicken, rich in flavor and deep brown in color. Even the nine-year-old gave the gumbo a thumbs-up and ate it for dinner two nights in a row. (Just as Wilson promises, it was even better the next day.) This was Todd’s first attempt at a roux. “I could have let it get darker,” he reported as we ate, “but I was a little afraid to burn it.”
I suspect he’ll be giving it another go at some point in the future. Meanwhile I’ll continue to gun for hushpuppies with whipped butter, and perhaps I’ll experiment with a batch of Bourbon Marshmallows or a Bacon-Latticed Apple Pie. For the Love of the South feels like a cookbook that will become a frequent guide to our family’s mealtime adventures.
Susannah Felts is a writer, editor, and educator in Nashville, as well as co-founder of The Porch Writers’ Collective, a nonprofit literary center. She is the author of This Will Go Down On Your Permanent Record, a novel, and numerous journal and magazine articles.